Man convicted of assaulting girlfriend says mandatory program was 'a damn eye-opener'

One program has served 374 people in the past year, but is limited to 12 weeks. Another goes deeper, but only has room for eight men at a time.

Sessions for men who assaulted partners seen as key to stopping domestic violence

A Windsor man, seen here at work, who completed the Partner Assault Response program says it was a "damn eye-opener." (Vince Robinet/CBC)

This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.

When a 58-year-old Windsor man pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend, part of his sentence required him to enrol in the Partner Assault Response (PAR) program.

The first night the grandfather of seven walked into the group session, he was skeptical. "Why should I? What the hell did I do? It wasn't just my fault."

CBC News is not using the man's name because he fears jeopardizing his employment by speaking out about his domestic abuse.

Dwayne Barris counsels men through the Partner Assault Response program, run by Family Services Windsor-Essex. (Vince Robinet/CBC)

As the meetings continued for the next 12 weeks, he said his attitude changed. "It was like a damn eye-opener. I thought I knew everything, but once I got into the program, I'm just saying it opened your eyes."

"It details you as the individual ," he said. "What you did is you, regardless if you were under the influence of anything or not. That motion that you made was your motion. Regardless of how you look at it as 'Oh, she made me do it.' No, you did it...You should have thought about that. But I didn't have [any] of those tools."

He now carries printouts of the PAR sessions around in his truck so he can refer back to them, and has shared what he learned with his 22-year-old son.

The Partner Assault Program (PAR)

Family Services Windsor-Essex has the contract to run PAR on behalf of the Ministry of the Attorney General. In the past year, 374 people were referred to it by probation and parole services, or the crown's office. While most of the participants are men, between 10 and 15 per cent are women.

"They definitely don't want to be there because they're forced to be there," said Dwayne Barris, one of the counselors who leads the groups. By the time the 12 weeks are done, Barris says "almost every person tells me that they've got something out of the groups that was helpful for them."

Despite the success stories, there are also those who relapse. 

"Unfortunately, some of the referrals, they end up coming back to us on new offences," said Ciara Holmes, the manager of quality assurance for Family Services Windsor-Essex. "The group is an educational group. It's not created to create clinical change."

We try to plant seeds for change as best as we can- Ciara Holmes, Family Services Windsor-Essex

One issue is the length of the program. Prior to 2014, PAR ran for 16 weeks. Barris said many men who complete the 12-week course tell him they wish it would continue, or that they could take the next session too.

"I say, 'You can't do that,' and they actually ask me to ask my supervisor if that's possible, and I say, 'They won't allow you to do that because that's not what it's set up for.'"

Ciara Holmes oversees the Partner Assault Response program for Family Services Windsor-Essex (Vince Robinet/CBC)

Holmes said many of the people who come to the program have had a lifetime of "complicated traumas," mental health issues or substance abuse. Compared to that, she said 12 weeks of classes are "a drop in the bucket."

"PAR is an after-the-fact program. We try to implement positive change within the time frame that we're given," Holmes said. "We try to plant seeds for change as best as we can."

The Fresh Start program

Hiatus House offers another program to help such men, over a longer period of time. Fresh Start runs in eight-week cycles, and men are encouraged to continue attending for a year or longer. That's because officials feel it can take that long for them to get to the root of their issues.

These meetings run for two hours on Friday nights. Just like PAR, these are group sessions, but where PAR teaches a structured curriculum, Fresh Start gets a lot more personal.

"Information is important, but a lot of people try to solve their problems based on information alone, and then as we probably all know to some degree, that information is not enough," said Mike Sultana, the Hiatus House therapist who leads Fresh Start. "Look at all the people who make New Year's resolutions and within two weeks, they sabotage the change process."

"I'm very direct with the men, and I ask them questions like, 'Have you been abusive in the last week, in any way, shape or form, with your partner?'" Sultana said.

Mike Sultana is the therapist who runs the Men's Fresh Start program at Hiatus House in Windsor. (Vince Robinet/CBC)

Every eighth week, the women are invited to come to the session and evaluate how the men are doing. They're asked straight up if there has been any abuse in the preceding weeks.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic the sessions are currently on hold, but existing clients are being given telephone counselling and support.

Most of the men who join Fresh Start pay for the sessions out of their own pockets, although some are subsidized by the Children's Aid Society, if it refers them.

We know that we can make a difference if we get the chance.- Thom Rolfe, Hiatus House

Currently, there are eight men taking part in Fresh Start, a far cry from enrolment a generation ago. In 1994, 297 men received treatment. Hiatus House executive director Thom Rolfe said the provincial government cut funding to the program in 1995, and they lost three full-time positions.

"We believe and we know that we can make a difference if we get the chance," Rolfe said. "If we advertised and had the resources, we wouldn't have any trouble filling groups."

Tom Rolfe is the executive director of Hiatus House, a shelter for women seeking refuge from domestic violence in Windsor. (Peter Duck/CBC)

Rolfe raised the issue with Ontario's Minister Responsible for Women's Issues, Jill Dunlop, when she visited Hiatus House March 12.

Meanwhile, at Family Services, Holmes is working on a plan to start collecting data to find how much its classes are shifting men's perceptions of women, from negative to positive.

"Giving people more coping strategies to deal with the complexities of life … would definitely help us," Holmes said. "I think it starts with us doing a little bit more measuring to see how we're making a difference and in what areas, and maybe in the areas that we're lacking, we can try to improve."

You need to really think, rethink your situation.- Graduate, Partner Assault Response program

The man who graduated from the PAR program says a shift in men's mindsets will make the biggest difference in stopping domestic violence, for future generations.

"It's the man. If you want to cry, it doesn't make you no less of a man to cry. Even every now and then, you say you love her, it's not a crime to say it, man. You need to really think, rethink your situation, rethink your direction, because if you don't do it, that child that you're showing that to is gonna come up and be just like you."

Because of COVID-19 and restrictions currently in place, Ciara Holmes at Family Services Windsor-Essex said PAR is currently on hold. "We have stopped delivering groups in person," she said. "We are now working to launch programming through telephonic means."

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